Over the weekend, I finished How We Got to Now, the new book by Steven Johnson.
The book interweaves technology and history and explores how they interact and shape each other. Specifically, it details the history of the now everyday—glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. PBS has also launched a mini-series with an episode covering each topic.
One of the most fascinating chapters is about glass. In 1204, with the sacking of Constantinople, a small group of glass blowers sailed to Venice to find refuge. There they developed their craft, but there was just one problem—the kilns at 1200 degrees would often catch fire and burn down large parts of Venice, which was mostly wood at the time. In an effort to protect the public, the government exiled all the glassmakers to the island of Murano, a mile across the Venetian Lagoon.
There, with talent concentrated, they flourished, giving birth to clear glass and, ultimately, lenses and mirrors. Lenses (from the Italian word for lentil because of their original bean shape) would lead to reading glasses, telescopes, and microscopes. The development of the mirror had the most unexpected consequences. They became pervasive, showing up, for example, in paintings like Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas. All of a sudden, we could look at ourselves as individuals. We began to analyze ourselves in diaries and to scrutinize our lives. Johnson argues that, debatably, this led to new social conventions, property rights, and other legal customs revolving around the individual rather than the older, more collective units of family or kingdom.
Unknowingly, the Venetians created an innovation hub, not too different than what many cities are trying to do today (think of Chicago’s recently launched Matter). As Johnson illustrated with the example of the glassmakers moving to Murano, innovation seems to follow from increased density. This makes you appreciate city planning and zoning—otherwise seemingly simple zoning decisions have the ability to create pockets of innovation. This is one of the ways government can guide design and development.